Prince Collin clutches his sword tight as the evil minions advance. The glow of magic forms around the end of the Maginos’ staff, accompanied by a faint hum, as the wizard readies a spell. The blacksmith Nez steps forward, swinging his hammer, and lets forth a mighty battle….. squeak?
Mice and Mystics is a 4-player cooperative game where players take the roles of mighty heroes, still loyal to the king, battling against the evil forces of the sorceress queen Vanestra. The catch? The heroes have turned themselves into mice in order to escape the dungeon where they have been imprisoned.
The heroes will face a variety of perils – rats, cockroaches, spiders and centipedes – as they try to escape the castle and save the kingdom. The game plays out over 11 unique “chapters”, each contained in a gameplay session lasting one to two hours. Every chapter builds on the last, weaving together an ongoing story of the heroes’ adventures. The heroes gain new abilities and find different equipment, leading to some role-playing game style advancement as the game plays out.
As a fully cooperative game, there is no “game master” or “overlord” type player controlling the monsters and villains. Instead, players move their adversaries via a programmed/established logic, depending on the opponent, and roll dice to represent the monster’s attack or defense. This allows players to focus instead on working together to control their individual hero or heroes to victory.
First and foremost, Mice and Mystics looks gorgeous. From the evocative cover illustration to the beautifully sculpted miniatures, everything about the game is a treat for the eyes. Each chapter is played out on a “board” built out of three or four of the eight included modular tiles, all painted to evoke the dappled light of the dungeon cell or glow of underground moss, further enhancing the immersion in the world of the game. Players advance from tile to tile either at the edges, where tiles connect, or in a unique manner where mice move up or down a level in the castle by flipping over the tiles to reveal the another level of the same area.
All of the graphic design is fantastically handled as well, with natural textures reminiscent of wood grains and stone throughout. The iconography supports the gameplay and is easily interpreted even by the younger gamers. The custom dice serve many different functions in the game, with different symbols on the same sides of the dice representing everything from searching, defending, attacking and more. There are a number of tokens used for various statuses and special characters (perhaps an overwhelming number for newer players) but each is clearly labeled and easy to read, or explained on a summary page in the rulebook.
A Hero is Born
Each of the six included heroes in Mice and Mystics feels unique and has a personality of their own, further enhanced through story moments scattered throughout the game. All six conform in many ways to fantasy archetypes, for those familiar, but the mouse theme and character development make them feel fresh. Each character will have a moment to shine in the story, be it the matronly healer Tilda, to the shady rogue Filch. The sculpts (That’s artist for “figure”. – Stephen) for the figures are beautifully crafted, but are unpainted. Even the budding painter will want to finish them off to really bring the immersion in the game to its fullest.
While there are six playable characters in the box, only four are selected in most chapters, and different chapters have different setup rules on which characters should be included. Those who are really looking for an RPG experience, where they level one character up through all the stories, may be disappointed in their inability to become too attached to one character. However, the choice works overall in service to the ongoing story.
While the theme of Mice and Mystics hits squarely in the all ages category, don’t mistake the game for easy. The enemies all move and attack with predictable patterns (as one would expect from a fully co-op game) but a timer system, in the form of a cheese wheel, keeps the tension up and the gameplay fast and furious. Filling the wheel, either by delaying too long in a room after the enemies have been defeated, or by the rolling of cheese on the dice when taking enemy actions, results in a “surge” of new enemies appearing. In addition, the page marker advances, moving the players one step closer to chapter end and utter defeat.
Cheese is not always bad, though. Players can earn cheese on their die rolls as well. These cheese are then used to power special abilities, or buy more abilities as the game progresses. The cheese mechanic certainly helps to balance out the unfortunate die rolls, as a missed attack or fumbled defense can result in cheese to help in future turns.
Even with the balance provided by the unique cheese mechanic, Mice and Mystics is a challenging game. With experienced adult gamers, it’s not uncommon to fail 20-30% of the games played. This can be especially frustrating for younger players, and we have often “house ruled” certain scenarios to improve the enjoyment of the younger kids.
The Good, the Bad and the Squeaky
Overall, a lot of what players get out of Mice and Mystics will depend largely on what they come in expecting. While the game has RPG elements, it doesn’t allow the freedom of choice that a true RPG system has. In addition, the levelling system from chapter to chapter may leave the hardcore RPG fans wanting more. For those coming to the game from a dungeon crawl style board game background, the game may feel too dice-dependent and lacking in strategy, especially given it’s fully cooperative nature.
The problem with all these expectations is that Mice and Mystics is none of those things, even though it shares characteristics with them all. In the end, much of Mice and Mystics charm is the knife-edge balancing act it strikes between story-book tale, Dungeon-crawl gameplay and RPG advancement, while still feeling unique from all of those things. If we were to leverage one complaint against the game, independent of expectations, it’s that the game is almost a *must* at the four-player count. Chapters are designed and balanced for four mice heroes, and any lower player count doesn’t result in fewer heroes on the board. Instead, one player just controls more. It’s certainly *possible* to play with three or two (or even one) player, but doing so feels like an incomplete game.
In the end, Mice and Mystics is incredibly successful at what it does well. It creates an incredibly immersive story with gorgeous components and a saturation of theme. With one small-box expansion (Heart of Glorm) and one large box expansion (Downwood Tales) already available, and more sure to come in the future, there is no shortage of stories to experience in the world of Colin and his tiny companions. Given that chapters tend to be quite variable in how long they play out (usually in the 60-120 minute range) the game requires setting aside a full afternoon or evening to play, but it’s an adventure we strongly recommend making the time for.